Well, here we are. We all knew it would come to this. Science fiction fans have no doubt what I’m going to talk about here. It’s the answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
That’s right. It’s 42.
According to Douglas Adams’ groundbreaking and world-shattering trilogy, The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the most amazing and powerful computer the universe had ever seen was built with one purpose in mind: to answer to the question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. After many centuries of working on this problem, the computer announced that the answer, in fact, is 42. The computer suggested that the reason everyone was disappointed in this answer was because nobody knew what the question was. So they built another computer to figure out what the question was. That computer was the size of a small planet — in fact, it was a small planet — in fact, it was our planet, Earth. But just before it was due to finish its work and reveal the Question, the planet Earth was destroyed to make room for an intergalactic highway.
And that’s just one of the many subplots that intertwine in the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide trilogy, which now spans six books, including one written decades after Adams’ untimely death. I highly recommend it. I can remember when I first got hold of the books. I was about twelve or thirteen, and spending a week in the summer at my grandmother’s house. Those were always among my favorite weeks of the year. I had heard a lot of good things about this series of books, and Grandmom always took me to the mall to buy something when I was there. I asked to go to WaldenBooks, and picked up a copy of book one, also titled The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I remember sitting on the chair in my bedroom at her house, and just reading and reading and reading. It was fantastic. It wasn’t long until I had collected the whole set (only four at the time).
I probably first heard of Hitch-Hiker’s through Doctor Who. I was a bit of a Doctor Who fanatic at the time. (And by “at the time,” I mean my whole life from age seven through the present.) I knew very well that Douglas Adams had been script editor for Doctor Who‘s seventeenth season, just before he started to write Hitch-Hiker’s. I knew very well that he had written three Doctor Who serials (The Pirate Planet, City of Death, and the mysterious, never-completed Shada). I started hearing about Hitch-Hiker’s through Doctor Who books I was reading. And I think I heard about it from some other sources as well, although I really can’t imagine what they would have been. Either way, I figured I ought to check it out.
Of course, Hitch-Hiker’s didn’t start its life as a series of books. Its first medium was radio, a serialized radio show that aired on BBC Radio beginning in 1978. It then became books (my favorite version). Then a television show, which is worth watching if only for two things: first, the incidental music by Paddy Kingsland — outstanding (not to mention very familiar to a Doctor Who fan). Second, the animation of “The Book.” You see, Hitch-Hiker’s is actually, in one sense, a story about a book, a book entitled “The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” One of the main characters, Ford Prefect, is actually a field reporter working for the company that makes the book. This Book-within-a-book is something of a proto-Wikipedia. It’s an exhaustive (and exhausting, sometimes) online dictionary of everything you might encounter in your travels around the galaxy. Every now and then in the television version, The Book appears to tell us something about somebody. The early 1980s computer animation, along with the narration and sound effects, is really quite charming and — well, I really hope it actually has stood the test of time. I would be very disappointed to learn that it’s dated.
Anyway, one medium that’s definitely dated is the Hitch-Hiker’s Guide video game. It was released in 1984 for all the standard personal computers of the time: Commodore 64, Apple II, Amiga, and so forth. It’s a text adventure, in which the screen tells you loads of things about what’s going on, and you have to type what you’ll do. Things like “go north,” “take toothbrush,” and “tell Prosser to stop.” The story of the game kind of, sort of, follows the story of the other media, but that’s only hearsay on my part. I have tried to play this game, and I have never gotten much past the first room. And from what I’ve heard, I’m not alone. It is a well-regarded game, but freaking hard. You can try it yourself — the BBC have a “30th Anniversary edition” online.
Then there was the movie made in 2005. Meh. I really didn’t like it that much. With one huge, enormous exception: Bill Nighy. He played a small role with a long name: Slartibartfast. He’s worth the price of admission. But he’s Bill Nighy (not the Science Gighy). How can you go wrong?
And that’s my story about 42. If you’ve never read the books, check ’em out. They’re fun. At least the first four are, anyway.